It’s not everyday that the themes of a game make you think long and hard about your own existence and what it really means. How do you move your arm? What compels you to do so? To really think deep and hard about our own existence can drive some people crazy, but, thankfully, SOMA, the new sci-fi horror title from Frictional Games, ask the questions for us: all we have to do is think of the answers ourselves.
Coming off the back of the success of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Frictional Games takes us away from the creepy castle environment and into a more claustrophobic deep sea installation. It’s hard to talk about the game’s story without giving too much away, but its views on Artificial Intelligence have been talked about in controversial capacity for some time. What SOMA does so well is show what can happen if it all went wrong. The story is presented from the view of Simon who wakes up in what looks like an abandoned deep sea installation. Trying to piece together what has transpired, you quickly discover that something terrible has happened to the residents of the installation, and some of them have been transformed into something inhuman. Early on, Simon comes into contact with another survivor named Catherine who guides him on his journey.
Much like Amnesia, SOMA plays out from a first person perspective where you can interact with almost every object in the environment as you lift things up, move them around, and examine almost every object in the world. Of course not every object will serve a purpose, but examining the likes of books, letters and reading emails greatly expand the story and give you insight into what has happened, not only to the people but also to the installation.
For most of the game I found myself wandering around the installation solving puzzles. Puzzles range from simply restoring power to a room and finding key card passcodes. I personally never ran into any puzzles in the game that I couldn’t figure out on my own, but some may find them a tad more difficult if they are not paying attention to the conversations between Simon and Catherine. The game doesn’t really give you much direction or hints for that matter in solving the puzzles, which may hurt the experience for some.
When you’re not solving puzzles you’re running and hiding. Although the game isn’t as scary as Amnesia, its horror elements build on tension and fear. The game builds tension through great sound design and the helplessness of your situation. Much like last year’s Alien: Isolation, SImon has no way to defend himself from the monstrosities that inhabit the installations. Running and hiding is your only option. The creatures will search high and low for you reacting to everything you do. Moving too fast and running over objects makes too much noise forcing you to sneak around. At first glance you may think these creatures are fairly easy to avoid.
Simply hiding behind an object and waiting from them to walk past seems simple enough until you realize they react to everything. Turning on your flashlight will attract them to the shiny light and knocking objects off shelves or running over pipes and boxes on the ground creates too much noise drawing the creatures closer to you. When caught by the monsters, Simon gets knocked out and wakes up in a generous checkpoint location. This gives you a second chance to get around your adversary, but getting caught a second time will lead to your death forcing you to restart the section. I found this a great change of pace keeping you in the moment instead of just forcing you to restart the entire encounter.
The game loses some of its tension when it takes you outside to the ocean flow. The closed-in environments keep you on the edge of your seat, not knowing what’s around the corner adds to the tension. Unfortunately, there are times when you have to venture outside of the various installations and exploring the underwater depths removes some of the tension from the game. Although these outside environments look good, with some some great detail such as the underwater sea life, it generally feels like you’re running around in the dark and getting lost without any direction.
My favorite aspect of SOMA is the sound design. Haunting sound effects litter the hallways of the installation with banging pipes, computers running in the background, footsteps and screams heard throughout the game. In particular, the harrowing sounds of the creatures leave a lasting impression. The voice acting is also surprising good. Simon and Catherine have a great dynamic between each other along with the rest of the cast which can be heard through sound logs. Examining the corpses of the dead crew allows Simon to hear their last moments allowing you to learn exactly what happened to them in their death.
SOMA is one of those games that horror fans need to experience. It’s views on artificial intelligence and what it means to be human will keep you thinking for days to come. It may not be strong in the jump scare department, but the tension it builds will keep you on the edge of your seat throughout most of its journey.